Where Are the Filipino Restaurants?
In a country with countless culinary options, Jadine Ngan asks why it's so hard to find food from the Philippines.
For months after moving to Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood, I walked past Kanto by Tita Flips without ordering anything. The tiny restaurant, housed in a shipping container at Bathurst and Dundas, always had its shutters drawn by the time I got home from class. That was okay, because I didn’t exactly feel a sense of urgency to try the food. My family is from the Philippines, and every dish that Kanto offered was familiar—if not in taste, then in name. Still, I felt regular pangs of longing to eat something, anything, from the menu.
A few years ago, I finally made it to Kanto during opening hours. A woman took my order from behind a sliding glass window that opened into a cramped kitchen. My food would be ready in ten minutes, she said in Tagalog. The sound of the language, directed at me, made my throat tighten. I missed my parents often but had never missed them more than in that instant. “Salamat po,” I said to her. Thank you: one of the only things I know how to say in my parents’ language. The woman who’d ordered before me had spoken in Tagalog too, and I took that as an assurance that the food would be good.
It was. The foil takeout container contained a portion of flayed milkfish, garlic-fried rice, a fried egg, and a small plastic tub of pickled vegetables. I felt strange eating bangus, the mild white milkfish, alone at my kitchen table. To me, Filipino food is family food, and I rely heavily on my parents to guide me through it. That day marked the first time I’d ever ventured out on my own to eat food from their homeland.
Growing up, I didn’t even know that food from the Philippines could be found in a restaurant. Though there are hundreds of East Asian eateries in Richmond, BC, my hometown, there are only three sit-down Filipino spots. When I asked my mother why she and my father hadn’t taken me to those restaurants as a child, she told me that they had opened when I was a little older.
The reason for the disparity can’t be population sizes: the 2016 census recorded a Filipino population of 13,575 where I grew up, around four times the Japanese population of 3,940. And it wasn’t just Richmond. Until 2012, when Lester Sabilano opened his restaurant Lamesa in Toronto, he hadn’t heard of any sit-down Filipino restaurants existing in the downtown core of one of the world’s most diverse cities—even though residents from the Philippines make up the city’s second-largest immigrant population.
The underrepresentation of Filipino restaurants in the West matters because the simple presence of restaurants—nestled into strip malls or city blocks, spilling aromas out into the street—makes food part of the public imagination. When a cuisine remains cloistered at home, it can’t enter the mainstream. It remains unknown to those who lack intimate ties with it, and harder to find for those looking to reconnect with it.
As a second-generation Filipino-Chinese immigrant who calls Canada home, I feel like a glaring impostor every time I talk about Filipino food. If you buy into the vision of Canada as a multicultural tapestry—a vision I was taught as a child, but now see as flawed—Filipino culture is meant to be the thread that I identify with. I do love the few Filipino dishes I know dearly, but I’ve always had trouble seeing Filipino food as my own.
The truth is that I didn’t grow up eating rich peanutty kare-kare or the developing duck embryo called balut. I didn’t grow up seeing them on menus like I did with pho, fried rice or sashimi. I have Chinese friends who pride themselves on their ability to order excellent dim sum, and I live in a country where food is a primary means of intercultural connection. My unfamiliarity with the food that’s supposed to be mine makes me feel untethered and placeless.
Identifying a national cuisine is simple at first glance, but increasingly problematic the longer you examine the idea of national unity. After all, the Philippines includes 7,641 islands, across which over 180 languages and dialects are spoken, and the country is home to an astonishing variety of regional variations in food preparation, flavour profiles and culinary customs.
Mississauga-based Filipino chef Keanu Francisco calls adobo, sinigang and kinilaw the “big three” mainstream Filipino dishes, but Filipino food is so much more diverse than that. A wealthy resident of metro Manila would certainly keep a different diet than a farmer in the rice terraces of Banaue or a tricycle driver in the Muslim region of Mindanao. My maternal grandmother is from the province of La Union, a ten-hour drive north of Manila. She flavours her boiled vegetables with bagoóng, a fermented anchovy paste made in clay jars. Meanwhile, in the west, residents of Bicol love their searing chiles.
Yet even in the face of vast diversity, we can still pinpoint some common qualities of food in the Philippines. For starters, it revolves around three key flavours: asim (sour), alat (salty) and tamis (sweet). In terms of aromatics, garlic, Spanish onion and ginger form what some consider to be the Filipino “holy trinity.” They are to the Philippines as mirepoix is to France or sofrito is to Spain. Meanwhile, if there is one common food eaten throughout the entire Philippines, it is likely rice: renowned Filipino food writer Doreen Fernandez calls the grain “the background against which all our food is meant to be eaten.” The fragrant garlic-fried rice that lined the bottom of my Kanto takeout container is called sinangag, and is a common base for all meals, including breakfast.
Most importantly, food has always moved, and Filipino food in particular is a window into a history of movement. According to Nhung Tuyet Tran, a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Toronto, it’s a common misconception that contact with Europe jump-started trade action in Southeast Asia. In fact, long before European arrival, the area’s waterways and winds enabled goods, practices and knowledge to circulate along intraregional and long-distance trade routes. That’s likely how many local communities came to use fermented anchovies as a flavouring sauce; in the Philippines, that fish sauce is known as patis.
Other pre-European influences included India, Arabia and the Middle Kingdom, which all interacted with the Philippine Islands through trade. The earliest trace of Chinese economic interaction with the Philippine archipelago dates back to 982 AD, and in the centuries since, the Philippines has absorbed an abundance of Chinese foods, like noodles, and food practices, like boiling and steaming.
Of course, as Sidney Mintz—who the New York Times once called the father of food anthropology—observes, “War is probably the single most powerful instrument of dietary change in human experience.” The most violent culinary changes that the Philippines experienced remain the easiest to identify today. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish sailed to the Philippines with a document called El Requerimiento. According to the logic of that document, if anyone defied the dominion of the Spanish king and church they could expect to face a war waged “with the help of God,” during which Indigenous peoples should blame themselves for all of their own deaths and losses. A brutal plundering of the islands followed, and for the following three hundred years, the Spanish violently imposed their rule on the Philippines, seeking to create a “New Europe.” As a result, rich desserts like leche flan and fiesta foods like paella entered the Filipino repertoire, as did cooking techniques like the sauté and the stew.
At the close of the nineteenth century, the United States assumed colonial rule over the archipelago. Decades of American cultural dominance and “benevolent” assimilation followed, during which the new colonial rulers denigrated Filipino food as primitive and elevated American foods—ice cream, canned goods—as modern. Those foods, unsurprisingly, became commonplace in the Philippines.
All the while, Filipinos creatively indigenized many of the foreign foods imposed upon them. For example, Filipino cooks imbued Spanish paella with the flavours of their tropical landscape. Malagkit, or glutinous rice, replaced bomba rice. A bark called ange took the place of saffron, and coconut milk was used as sauce. The dish was no longer paella; it had become bringhe, in a transformation far from unique to the dish. Filipino cuisine is, above all, resilient—even if by necessity rather than choice.
Clearly, the food made in the Philippines today is a tangible representation of the Philippines’ long transnational history. Here’s my favourite description of the nature of Filipino food, from cultural anthropologist Fernando N. Zialcita: “Filipino cooking has thematic flavors that give it coherence; at the same time, like a poem, it alludes to other culinary worlds.” Isn’t that beautiful?
What’s curious, though, is that the Philippines is far from alone in incorporating transnational flows into its culinary landscape. While tomato sauce might seem quintessentially Italian today, the tomato has roots in South America; likewise, Ireland’s beloved potato hails from the Andes. The reason, again, has to do with violent conquest. Post-1492, Europeans voyaged back and forth between the “New World” and the “Old World” as they colonized the Americas. The side effect? A massive exchange of ideas, deadly disease and food crops, including the tomato and potato.
In a way, all the cuisines we identify as “national” today are the result of exchanges across vast swathes of land and sea. In most cases, those flows just aren’t visible to us. Krishnendu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas, authors of Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food, and South Asia, argue that for a national cuisine to take shape, the “foreignness of its foods and foodways” must often fade from memory. However, the foreign elements of Filipino cuisine have remained appreciably foreign to the Western eye.
Maybe that’s what blocks Filipino food from fitting neatly into Western foodie vocabulary. Specifically, Filipino food seems to defy the term authenticity. Food philosopher Lisa Heldke argues that the concept of authenticity is connected to a desire to consume the exotic—to encounter a cuisine that has yet to be altered by outside influence. But the powerful, enduring and pervasive Western influences in Filipino culture can’t coexist with essentialized, simplified notions of Asia.
This uncomfortable collision has an impact on Filipino identity. Zialcita has observed that Filipinos tend to apologize for their hybrid heritage “because of the eagerness to be ‘Asian’ at all cost.” In my experience, these apologies sometimes extend to the realm of food.
Why aren’t Filipino restaurants more widespread? The internet offers a host of hypotheses. “I think the Spanish influence has really muted the dining experience there,” one Redditor wrote in 2015. Others have noted that Filipinos may not feel the need to go to Filipino restaurants because they’re happy with the food they can make at home. In Ali Wong’s guide to Asian restaurants, the comedian writes that the only good sign of a Filipino restaurant is that it’s an auntie’s or lola’s house. Her only bad sign? “It’s a business and not a family member’s house.”
Filipino cuisine is one of the least universally loved categories of national cuisines, according to a 2019 study of the popularity of twenty-four national cuisines by the market research company YouGov. Filipinos reported high levels of enjoyment of their food, but that excitement wasn’t met by nationals of other countries. Meanwhile, as the company’s lead data journalist Matthew Smith observed, “It’s Filipinos who are the most likely to appreciate international cuisine. An average of 67 percent of Filipinos who had tried any given cuisine said they liked it, with only five types of food being liked by fewer than half.”
When I first came across these statistics, I immediately thought about the deep undercurrent of xenophilia that I sense whenever I return to the Philippines. Somehow, even if Filipinos are fiercely proud of their culture, they place all things foreign—particularly Western—on pedestals. Food has always been entangled in enduring networks of power, and within the Philippines, Doreen Fernandez observes that Spanish colonial food enjoys higher prestige than indigenous Filipino food, and is more likely to be served at special occasions. “Perhaps one effect of colonialism was that it convinced Filipinos that our food didn’t measure up on its own,” muses Filipino-American restaurateur Nicole Ponseca in the groundbreaking 2018 cookbook that she co-authored with chef Miguel Trinidad, I Am a Filipino: And This is How We Cook.
It hasn’t helped that the earliest representations of Filipino food in the West made a mockery of the cuisine. Consider this memory that Ponseca includes in the introduction of I Am a Filipino:
"When I was growing up, our food was literally a joke. Howard Stern notably made fun of Filipinos because of what we ate, and Fear Factor had to bribe contestants to eat our balut and dinuguan. The message was clear: I should be ashamed of our food. But I liked the food—the balut, a duck embryo still in the shell, served as is; and the dinuguan, a rich, deeply flavored pork blood stew. While other cultures openly called their blood recipes morcilla or blood cake, I was told to call dinuguan “chocolate stew,” disguising its key ingredient."
Food itself may be material, but the meanings surrounding it are socially constructed. Because of cultural mockery, Filipino restaurateurs have needed to fight embarrassment and ignorance to establish their cuisine in North America. Ponseca is one of them. To her, I Am a Filipino is a manifesto as much as it is a cookbook, with the goal of seeing Filipino food treated with the reverence it deserves.
That fight is beginning to pay off. In the past few years, I’ve been watching Filipino food finally begin to make a popular Western debut in cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., where new restaurants are offering innovative takes on traditional dishes. Trajectories of popularity can be hard to chart, but in 2018, the New York Times published an article titled “Filipino Food Finds a Place in the American Mainstream.”
I can identify elements of that renaissance in Toronto, where some people I know are surprisingly familiar with kamayan, a Filipino spread of meats and seafood placed on banana leaf and eaten by hand. NOW Magazine called Filipino food one of Toronto’s major food trends of 2022, and Canada’s largest Filipino food festival, Taste of Manila, takes place in North York. Still, this surge in popularity has yet to make its way to my hometown.
Somehow, Filipino food has become either a family food or a solitary food for me. I have trouble seeing it as something that could connect me to my peers—something that I could enjoy with friends over lunch. My sister feels the same way. She doesn’t bother hiding the sadness in her voice when she admits that her friends, most of whom are Asian too, don’t understand the cuisine that is her favourite.
It means they don’t understand the part of her that sits in front of a steaming bowl of tinola, chicken broth with green papaya and black peppercorns, and is transported to one of our uncles’ houses in Manila. With her first spoonful of broth, she is seated at a long table filled with laughing family members who pass shared dishes back and forth, their voices overlapping as they warn each other not to overeat.
I know that part of her, because it also lives in me. I know the sense of isolation that comes with it, but also how that isolation makes Filipino food all the more precious when eaten with people who understand.
It might be easier to shed that unease if I knew enough about the cuisine to invite others in. See, ask me to take you out for Filipino food, and I’ll make an excuse to disguise my discomfort: “I’m watching my budget and can’t eat out,” I might say. The truth, of course, is that I can’t bear to have you look at me like a culinary authority and then watch as I stumble my way through the menu. The words will be familiar, but I’ll order in English because I don’t trust my pronunciation. I’ll have tried only a handful of dishes, each only a handful of times; I’ll worry that you’ll see right through me, or that you’ll push the food away. I’ll wish that I had more practice eating Filipino food in public. Few things make me feel the rifts in my identity more than the thought of sitting in a Filipino restaurant without my family.
But ask me about the foods my family carried across the ocean, and I’ll tell you about my mother’s saucy chicken-carrot-potato adobo and my grandmother’s fragrant bola-bola, pork meatballs with little flecks of carrots and onions. It is only the obligation to an imagined national cuisine that makes me feel awkward and out of place.
In my corner of Filipino cuisine, I am home. I can talk about the tastes my family brought to Canada from Manila’s Chinatown: lomi, bihon, chami, flavourful and filling Filipino-Chinese noodle dishes. Those are the foods I grew up on, even if I can’t claim deep ties with much else. I know Filipino food in glimpses and love it in fragments. Is that enough? ⁂
Jadine Ngan is a National Magazine Award-nominated writer and photographer from Richmond, BC. Her bylines include the Walrus, Maclean's and Toronto Life. She is editor-in-chief of the Varsity, the University of Toronto’s newspaper of record.